There were times in Etosha National Park when it felt like we were driving through an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth. At other times, it was like, “Hello! Are there any animals out there?” It quickly became clear that we were not in a zoo, nor in a nature documentary.
Humans are used to manipulating environments to see what they want, when they want to see it. We have zoos, marine parks, and aquariums. On TV and travel websites and in magazines, people edit down to the money shots without detailing exactly what it took to get those images.
Out in the wild, the animals don’t care about posing for a picture for your blog or Facebook feed. They often turn their butts to you just as you’re about to get a great shot. And while some animals are everywhere, the ones you especially want to see are much harder to find.
One morning in Etosha, we set out early in search of nothing in particular, but hoping to see lions, elephants, and rhinos. We were up before dawn for breakfast where we were entertained by the boisterous chef from Zimbabwe. Then we drove and drove and saw nothing. (In most places in Etosha, you’re not allowed to get out of your car for the safety of both you and the animals.)
Finally, we spotted a line of cars and safari vehicles stopped along the road. People were hanging out of their vehicles, aiming their cameras and binoculars towards the bush. We realized this had to be something exciting and we pulled up behind them.
Two lions! The springboks that were closer to the road munched on grass and watched them carefully, trying to enjoy their breakfast while also trying to ensure that they wouldn’t become breakfast for the lions. The lions were walking away from us and I wished they would turn around and come back, but they had other things to do. Napping, most likely.
Later after more driving and very little sightings, we returned to the lodge for guidance. We asked the front desk staff where we might find elephants. The receptionist’s nonchalant response was, “Come back in June.” This, unfortunately, was not an option.
After flipping through a guest book of animal sightings, we decided to visit a spot where fellow travelers had spotted rhinos in the days prior. Again we drove and drove some more. And again, we eventually spotted cars stopped with heads and arms and cameras sticking out of the windows. We slowed down and saw a large gray blob in the middle of the grass. A rhinoceros! It was far from us and its head was often buried in the plants it was eating, but every so often it moved and took a breather and we got a better look.
These distant sightings of two of the world’s most intriguing animals required the right time of day, advice, patience, and a bit of luck. It would’ve been easier if we had visited in a cooler and drier season when the animals need to use the watering holes and don’t need to hide in the shade as much. We didn’t get to see the lions or the rhinoceros up close and we never saw any elephants.
But just to have seen the powerful and purposeful strides of those two lions as they walked away, to have seen those prehistoric-looking rhinoceros horns sticking out above the grasses… to have seen wild animals being wild is one of the greatest privileges of my life.